We usually think of the word “annunciation,” in connection with the announcement to Mary that she will bear a child (Luke 1:26-38). However, in Matthew’s Gospel, it is Joseph to whom the angel appears. Luke tells us of Mary’s obedience (Luke 1:38), but Matthew tells us of Joseph’s obedience (v. 24).
Luke features Mary prominently in his account of Jesus’ birth (Luke 1-2), but Matthew brings Joseph to the forefront. Joseph is important to Matthew’s Gospel, because Jesus becomes part of David’s lineage through Joseph (1:1-17).
However, Matthew includes five women in his genealogy, so he is not trying to diminish the role of women. The particular women mentioned in the genealogy are interesting:
Perhaps Matthew included these women in his genealogy to illustrate God’s grace—to give us all hope.
This annunciation has deep Old Testament roots. There an angel announced to Hagar that she would bear a son whose name would be Ishmael (Genesis 16:7-14)—God announced to Abraham that Sarah would bear a son whose name would be Isaac (Genesis 17:15—18:15)—an angel announced to the wife of Manoah (and later to Manoah) that she would bear a son (Judges 13:2-25). Like Joseph of old in Egypt, this Joseph is a righteous man set on doing God’s will.
18Now the birth of Jesus Christ was like this; for after his mother, Mary, was engaged to Joseph, before they came together, she was found pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19Joseph, her husband, being a righteous man, and not willing to make her a public example, intended to put her away secretly.
“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah was like this” (v. 18a). Matthew began this Gospel by asserting that Jesus is “Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (1:1). Now he reasserts that Jesus is the Messiah. In his description of Jesus’ birth, he gives none of the details about the manger or the shepherds that we find in Luke. His account of Jesus’ birth focuses primarily on Joseph, through whom Jesus will become a son of David (1:1-16).
“for after his mother, Mary, was engaged to Joseph, before they came together” (v. 18b). Jewish marriage starts with an engagement arranged by parents, often while the boy and girl are still children. Prior to marriage, couples begin a yearlong betrothal similar to marriage except for sexual rights. Betrothal is binding, and can be terminated only by death or divorce. A person whose betrothed dies is considered a widow or widower.
“she was found pregnant by the Holy Spirit” (v. 18c). There are numerous stories in Greek and Roman mythology of such conceptions, but “it is most important that we not lapse into paganism by…presenting Jesus as a demigod, half human by virtue of birth from a human mother, half god since begotten by a god (Hare, 11). Christian doctrine affirms Jesus’ full humanity and full divinity.
“Joseph, her husband, being a righteous man, and not willing to make her a public example, intended to put her away secretly” (v. 19). Deuteronomy 22:23-24 says:
“If there is a young lady who is a virgin pledged to be married to a husband,
and a man find her in the city, and lie with her;
then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city,
and you shall stone them to death with stones;
the lady, because she didn’t cry, being in the city;
and the man, because he has humbled his neighbor’s wife:
so you shall put away the evil from the midst of you.”
Deuteronomy 22:25-27 makes an exception for the woman if the act takes place in the countryside where there is nobody to hear her protest, but the man is still to be stoned. Under this law, Mary is subject to death by stoning.
However, by the time of Jesus’ birth, the Romans are in charge and will not allow Jews to impose the death penalty (John 18:31). Nevertheless, penalties for illicit pregnancy are serious. The man is expected to divorce the woman. The man would also reclaim the bride price, a substantial sum.
Joseph is described as righteous––he lives by God’s law. However, he is not self-righteous, a quality that would cause him to demand harsh justice. He resolves to divorce Mary quietly so that he might not cause her unnecessary pain. In doing so, he models Christ-like compassion in the face of sin. He also demonstrates a Godly balance between the Law of Torah and the Law of Love.
The proper relationship of the Godly person to the law is a major theme of this Gospel. Jesus will perform numerous acts of compassion that offend self-appointed keepers of the law:
- He will forgive a paralytic’s sins and be accused of blasphemy (9:2-8).
- He will cast out a demon and be accused of healing by the power of demons (9:32-34).
- He will pluck grain on the Sabbath to feed his disciples and be accused of breaking the Sabbath law (12:1-8).
- He will heal a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath, and be accused of breaking the Sabbath law (12:9-14).
- He will break the tradition of the elders and call attention to their failure to keep the Torah (15:1-20).
- He will render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s (17:24-27).
- He will distinguish between God’s intent for permanency in marriage and Moses’ allowance for divorce (19:1-12).
- He will say that the greatest commandment is to love God and neighbor (22:34-40).
- He will pronounce blessings and curses on those who help the needy or fail to do so (25:31-46).
- On two occasions (9:13; 12:7), he will quote Hosea 6:6, “For I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.”
MATTHEW 1:20-21. AN ANGEL OF THE LORD
20But when he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to take to yourself Mary, your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. 21She shall bring forth a son. You shall call his name Jesus, for it is he who shall save his people from their sins.”
“But when he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream” (v. 20a). This is the first of three occasions in which an angel appears to Joseph in a dream. In each instance, the angel calls Joseph to action and Joseph obeys. He has no speaking part––Matthew does not record one word that Joseph says. In this first appearance, the angel commands Joseph to take Mary as his wife. In 2:13, the angel will tell Joseph to take the mother and child to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath. In 2:19, the angel will, at the death of Herod, tell Joseph to return to Israel. In a fourth obedience, after being warned in a dream (no angel this time), Joseph will go to Galilee (2:22).
The angel begins by saying, “Joseph, son of David” (v. 20), alerting us to Joseph’s lineage. It is through Joseph that Jesus will be of the house and lineage of David.
“don’t be afraid” (v. 20b). The angel will repeat these exact words to the women at the tomb following Jesus’ resurrection (28:5). Jesus will use the same words on several occasions (10:31; 14:27; 17:7; 28:10). Joseph is not to be afraid of the angel––or of his neighbors’ opinions––or even of the Torah requirement for punishment. He is not to hesitate, but is to wed Mary.
“She shall bring forth a son. You shall call his name Jesus, for it is he who will save his people from their sins” (v. 21a). Mary’s role is to bear a son, and Joseph’s role is to name him. By naming him, Joseph will make Jesus his son and bring him into the house of David.
The name, Jesus, “is the Greek form of the Hebrew Yehosua, which means ‘YHWH is salvation’ ” (Bergant, 27). It is related to the name Joshua––Moses’ successor.
“for it is he who will save his people from their sins” (v. 21b). The first Joshua saved the people from their enemies; the second Joshua (Jesus) will save the people from their sins.
In this Gospel, Jesus makes heavy ethical demands. We must be perfect, even as the Heavenly Father is perfect (5:48). A man who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart (5:28). It is therefore reassuring to see, at the outset, that Jesus has come to save us from our sins.
The people do not expect a messiah who will save them from their sins, but one who will deliver them from their oppressors.
Jesus would be far more popular if he would focus on relieving the people of Roman oppression instead of delivering them from their sins. The Romans drain the economy by their taxation, impose indignity after indignity upon the people, and displace God’s law with Roman law. Jesus not only fails to address these grievances, but also commends the faith of a centurion (8:5-13) and teaches people to render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s (17:24-27). In Luke’s Gospel, he will even forgive those responsible for his death (Luke 23:34).
MATTHEW 1:22-23. THAT IT MIGHT BE FULFILLED
22Now all this has happened, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying,
23“Behold, the virgin (Greek: he parthenos) shall be with child,
and shall bring forth a son.
They shall call his name Immanuel;”
which is, being interpreted, “God with us.”
“Now all this has happened, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet” (v. 22). The fulfillment of prophecy is important to Matthew. He mentions it eleven times (1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 26:56; 27:9).
“Behold, the virgin (he parthenos) shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son” (v. 23a). The verse cited is Isaiah 7:14. Isaiah spoke these words to King Ahaz in the eighth century. Jerusalem was under siege, and it appeared that both the city and the nation might be destroyed. Isaiah’s prophesied that a boy-child would be born and that, by the time he reached maturity, the threat from the enemy would have passed. We do not know that boy’s identity, but the city and nation were both spared.
“The virgin” is the correct translation of he parthenos rather than “a virgin”––the original has the definite article––suggesting that God has a particular virgin in mind. Isaiah referred to a young woman (almah)––although the the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament, uses parthenos, which means virgin, in Isaiah 7:14.
Matthew’s ho parthenos clearly means virgin. Neither Mark nor John addresses the issue of the virgin birth, nor do the epistles. However, both Matthew and Luke makes it clear that the child is from the Holy Spirit and that Joseph is not the father (Matthew 1:18, 21; Luke 1:35)––and that Mary is a virgin (Matthew 1:23, 25; Luke 1:34).
“Mary had to be a virgin, because Jesus is the Son of God. There is no way to prove Mary’s virginity other than to observe that without Mary’s virginity the story cannot be told. Mary’s virginity is simply required by the way the story runs. The one to whom she gave birth is none other than Emmanuel, ‘God with us,’ and such a one can have no other father than the Father who is the first person of the Trinity” (Hauerwas, 36).
“They shall call his name Immanuel” (v. 23b). In the Gospel of Luke, the angel tells Mary to name the baby Jesus (Luke 1:31), but this angel does not tell Joseph to name the baby Emmanuel. Instead the angel says that “they” will name him Emmanuel––”they” presumably being the people whom the baby will save from their sins (v. 21).
In Hebrew, El is a short form of Elohim, a name for God. Immanu-El means “God with us,” a meaning which Matthew spells out for non-Hebrew readers. Emmanuel is not a second name by which friends and neighbors will know Jesus. Jesus is his name, and Emmanuel describes his role. Matthew thus begins his Gospel with the promise that Jesus is God-with-us, and will end the Gospel with the promise that Jesus will be with us “always, to the end of the age” (28:20).
MATTHEW 1:24-25. JOSEPH DID AS THE ANGEL COMMANDED
24Joseph arose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took his wife to himself; 25and didn’t know her sexually until she had brought forth her firstborn son. He named him Jesus.
“Joseph arose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took his wife to himself” (v. 24). As noted above, an angel appears to Joseph three times and, on each occasion, Joseph obeys the angel without question or pause.
“and didn’t know her sexually until she had brought forth her firstborn son” (v. 25). The angel did not require this discipline of Joseph, but he assumes it voluntarily. His abstinence (and Matthew’s mention of it) rules out any doubt that Joseph could have fathered Mary’s child.
Today, Christians are divided with regard to Mary’s virginity––the issue being Mary’s perpetual virginity. Did Mary and Joseph consummate their marriage after Jesus’ birth? The phrase, “until she had borne a son” suggests that they did. Bruner says that, while major Protestant church fathers, including Luther and Wesley, believed in Mary’s perpetual virginity, “the burden of proof rests on those who would contest the simple meaning of the word until” (Bruner, 37).
Rather than trying to elucidate the pros and cons of this question, I will ask you to look to your denominational doctrine for guidance. The greater issue is not perpetual virginity but Christian charity––can we love Christian brothers and sisters with whom we disagree on an issue of this sort?
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Augsburger, Myron S., The Preacher’s Commentary: Matthew (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982). Formerly known as The Communicator’s Commentary.
Barclay, William, Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 1 (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1956)
Bergant, Dianne with Fragomeni, Richard, Preaching the New Lectionary, Year A (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2001)
Beker, J. Christiaan, Proclamation 6: Advent-Christmas, Series A (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995)
Boice, James Montgomery, The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 1: The King and His Kingdom (Matthew 1-17) (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001)
Boring, M. Eugene, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995)
Borsch, Frederick Houk and Napier, Davie, Proclamation 2, Advent-Christmas, Series A (Fortress Press, 1980)
Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV––Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Bruner, Frederick Dale, Matthew: Volume 1, The Christbook, Matthew 1-12 (Dallas: Word, 1987)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
France, R.T., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007)
Gardner, Richard B., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Matthew (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1990)
Hamm, Dennis, Let the Scriptures Speak, Year A (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2001)
Hare, Douglas R. A., Interpretation: Matthew (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993)
Hauerwas, Stanley, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Matthew (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006)
Hendriksen, William, and Kistemaker, Simon J., New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew, Vol. 9 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1973)
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Johnson, Sherman E. and Buttrick, George A., The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 7 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1951)
Keener, Craig S., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The Third Readings: The Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001)
Long, Thomas G., Westminster Bible Companion: Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997)
Morris, Leon, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1992)
Pilch, John J., The Cultural World of Jesus: Sunday by Sunday, Cycle A (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1995)
Senior, Donald, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Matthew (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998)
Soards, Marion; Dozeman, Thomas; McCabe, Kendall, Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Year A (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993)
Wylie, Samuel and McKenzie, John L., Proclamation: Advent-Christmas, Series A (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974)
DICTIONARIES, ENCYCLOPEDIAS, LEXICONS & ATLASES:
Aharoni, Yohanan and Avi-Yonah, Michael, The Macmillan Bible Atlas (New York: Macmillan, 1993)
Baker, Warren (ed.), The Complete WordStudy Old Testament (Chattanooga; AMG Publishers, 1994)
Baker, Warren and Carpenter, Eugene, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003)
Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979-1988)
Freedman, David Noel (ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 6 vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)
Lockyer, Herbert, Sr. (ed.), Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1986)
May, Herbert G. (ed.), Oxford Bible Atlas (Third Edition) (New York, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Mounce, William D., (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)
Myers, Allen C. (ed.), The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987)
Pfeiffer, Charles F., Baker’s Bible Atlas (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003)
Rasmussen, Carl G., Zondervan NIV Atlas of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1989.
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Richards, Lawrence O., Encyclopedia of Bible Words (Zondervan, 1985, 1991)
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vol. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008)
VanGemeren, Willem A. (General Editor), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 5 vol., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997)
Copyright 2009, 2019 Richard Niell Donovan